Unwanted, unconventional and unrelenting: the Michael Wroblewski story

Michael Wroblewski in a game against Rutgers on October 1, 2016.

Michael Wroblewski in a game against Rutgers on October 1, 2016. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

 

Thursday, April 13, 2017 - 7:31pm

NCAA Division I football programs can give just 85 scholarships per year.

Those 85 recipients are considered the lucky ones. They’ll receive a free education, provided they stick it out long enough, and they’ll also receive stipends that can ease the burden that comes with being a student-athlete.

That scholarship is also sign of status. It means that player was wanted. It means that player didn’t just receive the customary letters detailing interest, but that they were wooed by the coaching staff — perhaps even invited on an all-expenses-paid official visit. It means that player was seen as part of the future of the program — that hopefully one day, they would play a crucial role for a winning football team.

Michael Wroblewski didn’t receive any scholarships coming out of high school. He was never invited on any official visits. He didn’t even have the guarantee of a spot on the roster that some non-scholarship players — deemed “preferred walk-ons” — are given.

Yet, on Saturday, Wroblewski will run onto the field at Michigan Stadium for his final spring game, four years after his first as a member of the Michigan football team.

Now entering his final year and on a full scholarship, he is expected to be one of the leaders of a defense littered with young but talented players — nearly all of whom were highly-touted prospects offered scholarships by either the current or previous coaching staff.

Wroblewski was not one of those prospects. He took the less-traveled path.

When Wroblewski arrived in Ann Arbor, all he had was a lifelong affinity for the Wolverines, his conviction and the opportunity of a general tryout.

As it turned out, that was enough.

Michael Wroblewski was a Michigan football player for Halloween when he was five years old.

Michael Wroblewski was a Michigan football player for Halloween when he was five years old. Buy this photo
Courtesy of the Wroblewski Family

 

It didn’t take long for the Wroblewski family to instill a passion for Michigan football in their son. His father, Mike, bought him a winged helmet from a garage sale when he was just three years old. It hardly fit Wroblewski. But the budding young athlete insisted on carrying it with him everywhere — even wearing it for pictures.

During the fall, the family would drive to his great-grandmother’s house by Lake St. Clair on the weekends to pick grapes and make wine while listening to Michigan football games on the radio.

So Wroblewski quickly grew to love football and the Wolverines. He convinced his parents to sign him up for flag football, where he got his first taste of playing the sport.

He began playing other sports, too: basketball, baseball, soccer — anything he could get his hands on.

Football, though, remained his primary focus. His goal had been — and always would be — to play it at Michigan.

That didn't change even when he became one of the better lacrosse players in the state after arriving at the University of Detroit Jesuit.

By Wroblewski’s junior and senior year, he had achieved All-American status in lacrosse and was one of the most decorated players to ever emerge from the program. It was around then that he began fielding overtures from the Michigan lacrosse team, as well as hearing interest from several Division II and III football teams.

The only problem was that Wroblewski had no interest in listening to anyone besides Michigan — to the slight consternation of his parents.

“It was kinda funny because I couldn’t believe there were no offers coming in, so I had talked to the athletic director, and I asked him, ‘Nobody’s interested in him for playing football?’ ” said Laura Wroblewski, his mother. “And he said, ‘Oh yeah, we can get offers, but Michael said if it wasn’t Michigan, he didn’t want to entertain any of them.’ And I was furious! I thought, you’ve got to at least hear what they have to say!”

Added Mike: “He had finally said, ‘I like lacrosse, but I love football. I’d rather play in front of 100,000 people than 1,000 people.’ ”

Yet there remained zero contact between Wroblewski and the coaching staff he really wanted to hear from, then led by former head coach Brady Hoke.

His high school team’s on-field struggles may not have helped matters, either — Detroit Jesuit’s football coach resigned the summer leading up to Wroblewski’s senior season, and despite Wroblewski’s best efforts (he played both ways at running back and linebacker), the team struggled against a loaded schedule and finished 2-7.

“Mike was everything to us,” said Nick Kocsis, Wroblewski’s athletic director and football coach at Detroit Jesuit. “He’s just a throwback, gritty, blue-collar, tough kid, who happens to be — from what I remember — a brilliant student.

“We used to joke because he was so aggressive and so big and physical, we used to kid him that one day he was going to end up being a doctor and save one of our lives, but we’d be scared to death to see him in that room because of the way he acted on the football and lacrosse field.”

His high school career was over, and Wroblewski had yet to receive a modicum of interest from Michigan. The other options — lacrosse or playing at a lower level — had dried up, too, after the programs figured Wroblewski wouldn’t budge from his plan.

Only one door remained: attend the university as a normal student and make the team through tryouts.

“I knew I could do it academically, but I was really coming here for football,” Wroblewski said. “I didn’t even think about (a backup plan). I just had the one mindset of ‘I’m going to do this,’ and no plan B.”

He spent the rest of his senior year grinding through nightly three-hour workouts. Most didn’t know what he was up to — after coming across several naysayers, Wroblewski had stuck to confiding his plan with just his parents and a few close friends.

In the fall, he stepped foot on campus with the rest of the general student body as yet another nondescript freshman enrolled in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

Then came the tryout — essentially what he had spent most of his life preparing for.

Wroblewski had no way of knowing in real-time whether he was impressing the coaching staff enough to earn a spot. He was confident afterward that he performed well, but then came a period when he didn’t hear back from anyone.

“He was nervous, but he was trying to be confident like, ‘I gave everything I could on that field,’ ” Laura said. “So he never said he was worried they wouldn’t pick him, (but) we could just tell that he was worried about it because we’d ask him, ‘Did you hear anything? Did you hear anything?’ and he’d say, ‘No, no, but I’m sure I will.’ He was confident within himself, but still a little nervous.”

After a long two weeks, Wroblewski received a phone call. He picked up, and a voice asked if he wanted to play for the Michigan football team. 

His parents had an inkling of what had happened when they received a call from their son.

“Whenever he wants to have us on speakerphone, we know it’s usually something pretty good — or bad,” Mike said. “But this time it was, ‘Yeah, I’ve got some good news.’ ”

Added Laura: “The first (call) when he made the team, that one totally made us cry because it’s your kid achieving his dream at such a young age. This was his lifelong dream, and he made the team. It was almost surreal.”

Wroblewski had dreamed of making the team for much of his life. His next two goals — of earning a scholarship and finding playing time amongst a talented and experienced linebacking corps — would take longer to come to fruition.

Michael Wroblewski insisted on bringing his Michigan helmet with him to his 3-year-old portrait session.

Michael Wroblewski insisted on bringing his Michigan helmet with him to his 3-year-old portrait session. Buy this photo
Courtesy of the Wroblewski Family

 

Two years later, his parents were on the other end of a much more unpleasant phone call.

It was the spring entering what would have been his redshirt sophomore season, and Wroblewski was participating in a fullback-running back position drill. He was tackled, and his left knee twisted the wrong way.

Wroblewski told them he was walking into the hospital and said he was going for an MRI because his knee didn’t feel right. Then he said he couldn’t talk anymore, and hung up.

It took some time for the swelling to subside before Wroblewski returned to the hospital, this time with his parents.

The diagnosis was as feared: a torn ACL, one of the more catastrophic injuries a football player can suffer. It is an injury that, at the minimum, typically means a six-month recovery period.

Newly-hired head coach Jim Harbaugh, then in the midst of conducting his first spring practices, and Jim Minick, the associate athletic director for football, visited Wroblewski in the hospital while he recovered from surgery. Harbaugh told Wroblewski he really enjoyed having him on the team and that he liked his work ethic.

That conversation helped at first. But then a few days later, Wroblewski was on crutches back at home in St. Clair Shores, watching as his team played its spring game without him.

It was as if he was back to square one all over again.

“He didn’t say one word (during the game),” Laura recalled. “We didn’t say anything, either. It was just the hardest game to watch. And afterwards, he just went into his bedroom and shut the door. That broke our hearts.”

His parents helped take care of him for a few days before they drove him back to Ann Arbor. Football was a secondary concern at that point — simply reaching his bedroom on the second floor became an ordeal.

“It was very hard to just leave him there,” Laura said. “We took care of him after the surgery and then to just drop him off and be like, ‘Well I hope you can get around,’ was just very hard. His story is inspirational but hasn’t always been all fun. To get so far and to tear that ACL and have to go back to the bottom of the list — it was just very heart-wrenching.”

Once again, Wroblewski’s parents were faced with the same uncertainty they had experienced when he went unrecruited by Michigan. They didn’t know how their son would physically recover from the injury, and they worried about how he would respond mentally, too.

It was only after several trips to Ann Arbor to check on Wroblewski that they realized everything — like before — would turn out okay.

“We would come and take him out to dinner, and we’d run into some of (his teammates’ parents) just walking around Ann Arbor,” Laura said. “These kids would come up to him and say (to us), ‘Your son is so good in that rehab room. All he does is try and pump us up, and he tries to get us all excited to work our hardest, to get back out there, to be our best.’

“As parents, that made us feel good. He didn’t make it all about himself. He was like, ‘We’re all going to get better, and we’re all going to get out on the field.’ ”

Michael Wroblewski in a game against Penn State on September 24, 2016.

Michael Wroblewski in a game against Penn State on September 24, 2016. Buy this photo
Sam Mousigian/Daily

 

Wroblewski recovered fully from the injury. He remained with the team, working his way onto the depth chart as a MIKE linebacker. And then last year, during fall camp, Harbaugh called him into his office and said, “We’d like to put you on scholarship.”

Wroblewski is usually stoic. His parents said that themselves. But even he admitted feeling emotional during that meeting and during the subsequent phone call home.

After all, he had not only achieved his lifelong goal of playing for the team but also earned a mulligan on the recruiting process, proving himself worthy of a full scholarship nearly four years after the first go-around.

Things were going much more smoothly for him now.

Wroblewski went on to see his first-ever game action last season as part of the nation’s No. 1 defense, appearing in nine games and tallying four combined tackles.

Along with fifth-year senior Mike McCray and sophomore Devin Bush Jr., Wroblewski is expected to lead this year’s linebacking corps — due in part to his comprehensive knowledge of the defense, especially as a group of mostly inexperienced Wolverines continue to learn defensive coordinator Don Brown’s scheme.

“Wrobo helped me a lot last year,” Bush said. “He helped me a lot with the calls and understanding the defense. He was there when I needed him. If I was feeling out of place in the defense or I felt like I wasn’t getting things done, he was there to stay in my ear and tell me to keep pushing.”

Added Brown: “Mike Wroblewski is another guy that I’m watching in practice last year … can’t even believe it’s the same guy, you know? You talk about a self-made football player. But a guy that knows it all. I’ve never had to do this before — he’s telling the secondary, making their on-rights and lefts call ... he’s making the tight call, he’s making the detach calls for the outside linebackers, and it’s finally like, ‘Hey Wrobo, you need to shut up and let those guys make those calls themselves.’ ‘Oh yeah, coach. Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ That’s how well he knows the scheme.”

Wroblewski said it himself: It has been a long road — and the journey is still incomplete, with 13 more games and the chance for a championship season looming several months ahead.

Yet no matter what happens during his final season, that journey will be looked upon as remarkable.

There are thousands of kids who hope to one day wear a winged helmet and touch the banner at midfield amidst a hundred thousand cheering fans.

There are much fewer who achieve that goal — and even fewer than that are the ones who do so after being passed over the first time around.

“It just speaks to his drive,” Kocsis said. “Mike’s done that all himself. It speaks to his work ethic, his ability and his ability to get the most out of what he has, because he’s excelled there beyond any expectations I would have have.

“That’s not selling him short. It’s that rare to be that kid. That kid who walks on and then ends up playing in nine games last year on a Big Ten (contender) and this year is looked at as a team leader.”